Finding Fantasy In the Past – The World

When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.

Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.

Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.

This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.

The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.

And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.

With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.

Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.

Finding Fantasy In The Past

The Scar-Crow Men, the second of my Elizabethan fantasy novels, is out soon in the US and UK. It’s fantasy noir, renaissance punk, historical fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical urban fantasy or one of half a dozen other labels, depending on who’s speaking. Like some of my other work, the story exists at the point where the fantastic smashes up hard against reality, only in this sequence that reality is in the past, five hundred years gone, among well-documented, pivotal events.

Writing historical fantasy – to adopt the broadest label – has its own peculiar demands. We’re talking about an alien world here, with its own customs, clothes, politics, transport, weapons, social classes, art, music and economy and every aspect needs to be fully realized for the reader to settle into it.

To say this entails a massive amount of research, doesn’t begin to do the job justice. The writer needs to understand everything, both as its own thing and in context within the time period. This involves more than the invention of a secondary world fantasy, more than looking out of the window or Googling or location research for a contemporary fantasy (both of which I’ve written in the past).

Our knowledge of history degrades the further back we go. Characters walk on stage and then disappear. Our understanding of events is based on often-biased accounts. And sometimes there are vast parts of life that are simply missing in contemporary accounts.

The Elizabethan Age is reasonably well-documented, particularly with regard to affairs of state. The lives of the common men and women are there too, but the information is scattered widely. While writing this sequence, I sometimes had to embark on three different strands of research for a single sentence.

The Scar-Crow Men unfolds in the shadow of the murder of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a killing that has all the mystery and intrigue of the JFK assassination. The previous volume, The Sword of Albion (or The Silver Skull in the US), is set at the time of the Armada and the Spanish invasion of England.

Over a few posts here I’m going to be writing about what goes into creating these historical fantasies, looking at the places, the people, the milieu, not only setting the context but also underlining the basic premise that the more reality you get, the more effective the fantasy.